Valor: Operation Gunn

Jan. 1, 1995

After the famous August 1943, low-level bombing of oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, it was several months before Fifteenth Air Force in Italy attained a strength adequate for a sustained campaign against Ploesti while meeting its other commitments in southern and central Europe. Between April 5 and Aug. 19, 1944, Fifteenth Air Force’s heavy bombers hit Ploesti 19 times. Oil production in that complex was reduced by an estimated 80 percent, but enemy defenses remained strong, downing 223 bombers and many fighters. Some 1,100 captured bomber and fighter crews became POWs in Romania.

On Aug. 23, 1944, King Michael of Romania, whose country had joined Germany in 1940, surrendered to Soviet forces that had advanced into the country. In the next few days, one of the most unusual adventures of World War II took place.

It all began on Aug. 17, when Fifteenth Air Force sent 248 bombers to Ploesti. Lt. Col. James A. Gunn, commander of the 454th Bomb Group, led his B-24s on that strike. Before bombs away, four of the eight planes in his lead squadron were shot down by flak. Gunn and all but one of his crew parachuted safely and were captured immediately by the Romanians.

After interrogation, Colonel Gunn was sent to the officers’ prison in Bucharest, where he was the senior Allied officer. Although the POWs were not harmed physically, living conditions in the prison were appalling.

As news of the surrender spread, Romanian prison guards vanished, leaving the gates open. Gunn’s first task was to keep the POWs from vanishing into the city and surrounding countryside until arrangements for their repatriation could be made. It was some time before he could find anyone with authority. The retreating Germans had begun reprisal bombing of Bucharest, which added to the general terror at the prospect of Soviet occupation.

Colonel Gunn finally located several senior Romanian officials who agreed to move the POWs to a safer location and to fly him to Italy (there were no functioning radio or wire facilities in Romania) so he could contact Fifteenth Air Force about evacuating the POWs. In return, Gunn agreed to arrange for Fifteenth Air Force to attack the fields from which the Germans were bombing the city and to convey a request that Romania be occupied by either the British or the Americans.

True to their word, the Romanians arranged a flight to Italy in an ancient twin-engine aircraft. Twenty minutes out, the Romanian pilot turned back, claiming engine trouble. On landing, Gunn was approached by Capt. Constantine Cantacuzino, who offered to fly him to Italy in the belly of a Bf-109. Captain Cantacuzino was commander of a Romanian fighter group that had been flying for the Luftwaffe. He also was Romania’s leading ace and a member of the royal family. The risk of this venture was not slight. If they were downed by German or American fighters or by flak, or had engine failure, it would be curtains for Gunn, locked in the aft fuselage of the Bf-109.

There were no maps of Italy available, so Gunn drew from memory a map of the southeast coast of the country and an approach chart for his home base at San Giovanni Airfield. He wanted Captain Cantacuzino to fly on the deck to avoid German radar, but the Romanian, who did not have complete confidence in his engine, held out for 19,000 feet, which would test Gunn’s tolerance to cold and lack of oxygen.

As an added precaution, they had a large American flag painted on both sides of the fuselage. While that was being done, Cantacuzino drew Gunn aside and told him their plan to take off early the next morning had become widely known and might be compromised. As soon as the painting was finished, Cantacuzino produced heavy flying gear for Gunn, stuffed him through an 18-inch-square access door into the fuselage (from which the radio had been removed), locked the door, and took off at 5:20 p.m. on Aug. 27. The two-hour flight was completed without incident, though the Bf-109’s engine began to run rough over the Adriatic.

The two men were immediately driven to Fifteenth Air Force headquarters at Bari. Planning began that night for strikes on the German airfield near Bucharest and for evacuation of the POWs in quickly modified B-17s. The plan was designated Operation Gunn. By Sept. 3, 1,161 Allied prisoners of war had been flown out of Romania. Colonel Gunn had gambled his life and won–as had the POWs. Sadly, Romania was to remain under brutal Soviet control for the next 45 years.

Jim Gunn retired from the Air Force as a colonel in 1967, and now lives in San Antonio, Texas, where he heads a real estate business and is active in civic affairs.

Thanks to Lt. Col. Bob Goebel, USAF (Ret.), who told us about this story, and to Colonel Gunn for providing many details.

Published January 1995. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.